Expectations are mounting of a month-long second national lockdown to save Christmas, following the publication of chilling scientific papers predicting that coronavirus deaths this winter could outstrip the 85,000 envisaged in the government’s “worst case scenario”.
Boris Johnson is understood to have held meetings with senior cabinet ministers Rishi Sunak, Michael Gove and Matt Hancock to consider the best way forward, amid growing concern that his regional three-tier strategy for England is not working.
The Times and Daily Mail reported that the prime minister will hold a press conference on Monday to announce a new national shutdown beginning as early as Wednesday and last until 1 December.
It is understood that measures under consideration include the closure of everything but essential shops and educational settings, including nurseries, schools and universities.
But other reports quoted Whitehall sources as saying that a Tier 4 option of beefed-up regional measures was also on the table, potentially all pubs and restaurants and maybe non-essential shops but stopping short of the kind of stay-home instruction seen in the spring.
A senior member of the PM’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), the director of the Wellcome Trust Sir Jeremy Farrar, said: “Sadly, there is now no easy path ahead, just the least bad option. To bring Covid-19 under control, we have to act now. The virus will not wait for us.”
There was no confirmation of the plan from Downing Street, and it is understood that no final decisions have yet been made.
The prime minister will have seen the Sage papers published today a fortnight or more ago, but has resisted pressure to change tack so far.
The documents showed that as long ago as 8 October, Sage was warning that numbers of infections and hospitalisations in England had already exceeded the worst-case scenario for the winter on which government policy was based, and that deaths were likely to breach that threshold within two weeks.
They warned that it was now too late to deploy the two-week circuit-breaker shutdown which scientists had recommended in September as a means of getting the virus under control.
The report, from earlier this month added: “In all scenarios the epidemic is still growing.
“Sage has previously advised that a package of non-pharmaceutical interventions [lockdown-style measures] need to be adopted to reverse the exponential rise in cases. As previously, the earlier additional measures are introduced the more effective they will be. Longer-term sustained measures will also be essential.”
Mr Johnson has repeatedly stated over the past few weeks that he did not want to go back to national restrictions, which he said would be “completely wrong for the country” and “disastrous” for the economy.
He rejected a Sage plan for a two-week “circuit breaker” in September or October - possibly coinciding with the school half-term. Both Labour and Liberal Democrats have backed a time-limited circuit break, while tough restrictions have been imposed across Wales and much of Scotland.
And chancellor Mr Sunak has warned of the terrible impact a return to stringent restrictions on social and business lactivities would have on the economy.
As late as Friday morning, foreign secretary Dominic Raab was still insisting that the three-tier strategy was the best approach.
But there has been little sign of the regional approach turning the tide on Covid-19, despite millions of people entering tier three restrictions in Merseyside, Greater Manchester, Lancashire, South and West Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire.
Earlier this week, public health expert Dr Gabriel Scally of the University of Bristol told The Independent that a two or three week shutdown now would give Mr Johnson the option of permitting an “amnesty” of two or three days for families to gather for Christmas.
Sir Jeremy said today that it was now urgent to get the crucial reproduction rate of the virus - known as R - below the threshold of one at which it begins spreading exponentially.
“The best time to act was a month ago but these are very tough decisions which we would all like to avoid,” he said.
“The second-best time is now. The sooner we get on top of the disease, reduce transmission, get R below one, the sooner we can get our society back to normal & the economy back on track.
“Nobody 'wants' a lockdown, myself very much included. Full and generous support for people and businesses is a crucial part of making it work.
“But we have quickly breached the reasonable worst-case scenario, we are further ahead in this phase of the epidemic than many have assumed… We have to act now.”
Mr Johnson has invited the leaders of devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to a summit to agree a common approach to Christmas, potentially bringing together rules which currently vary widely between the four nations of the UK.
Sadly, there is now no easy path ahead, just the least bad option. To bring #COVID19 under control, we have to act now. The virus will not wait for us.
— Jeremy Farrar (@JeremyFarrar) October 30, 2020
Welsh first minister Mark Drakeford revealed he had received a letter from the PM at the start of this week, but no date for the meeting had been finalised.
Labour’s shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said: “We are in deeply serious situation with Coronavirus spreading with ferocity.
“Boris Johnson should have used the school half term for a time limited circuit break to push infections down, fix Test & Trace and save lives.
“It’s urgent Boris Johnson outlines the action he will now take to bring the virus under control and deliver on his promise to get R below 1 quickly.”